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Trump blasts Bibi but says US would 'protect' Israel against Iran

Trump blasts Bibi but says US would 'protect' Israel against Iran

In wide-ranging mainstream interview, the former president remains characteristically ambiguous about his foreign policy

Reporting | Washington Politics

Former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is as murky as ever.

He gave a rare long-form interview to journalist Eric Cortellessa for TIME’s stark May magazine cover, simply titled, “If He Wins.” Alongside the profile, TIME also released the full transcripts of two interviews that Cortellessa had with the former president.

Cortellessa grilled Trump on a number of foreign policy topics, including the ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine. As is often the case with Trump’s views on international affairs, they raise more questions than answers, leaving uncertainty about what he would do if elected president in November.

In general, Trump’s foreign policy approach seems motivated by criticizing what he considers to be Joe Biden’s failures while avoiding providing clear, discernible alternatives. On multiple occasions, Trump has claimed that neither Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nor Hamas’s incursion into Israel would have happened under his watch, claims he repeated during Tuesday’s interview.

Israel and the Middle East

Trump’s answers to what he would do about wars in the Middle East were largely noncommittal, with one notable exception.

When asked in the first interview — which took place the day before Iran launched airstrikes at Israel — Trump said that he would “protect Israel” in the case of a war with Tehran.

During a second conversation two weeks later, Trump seemed to endorse the idea that Iran’s strikes on Israel in April were telegraphed with the intention of avoiding further escalation — and said that that was a “good thing” — but then affirmed his support for defending Israel.

“So it would depend, obviously, but the answer is yes,” Trump said. “If they attack Israel, yes, we would be there.”

Otherwise, Trump played up his loyalty to Israel during his presidential term, touting his withdrawal from the JCPOA, his moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel. But Trump also had harsh words for Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I had a bad experience with Bibi. And it had to do with Soleimani, because as you probably know by now, he dropped out just before the attack,” Trump said, referring to the January 2020 strike that killed Iranian military officer Qassem Soleimani, in which, Trump claims, the Israeli prime minister declined to participate at the last minute. "And I was not happy about that. That was something I never forgot. And it showed me something. I would say that what happened on—the October 7 should have never happened.”

He added that Netanyahu “rightfully has been criticized for what took place on October 7,” without elaborating on exactly what he meant.

Speaking about Israel’s reaction to the Hamas attacks, Trump repeated an earlier criticism that Israel had mismanaged its PR approach to the war.

“I don't think that the Israel Defense Fund or any other group should be sending out pictures every night of buildings falling down and being bombed with possibly people in those buildings every single night, which is what they do,” Trump said, misnaming the Israel Defense Forces.

While Trump has previously said that Israel should “get [the war] over with,” he did not say what he would do to accomplish that goal. When pressed by Cortellesa over whether he would be willing to condition military aid to Israel to try to end the war, Trump deflected, instead listing the pro-Israeli policies implemented during his presidency.

Trump also expressed skepticism over the possibility of a two-state solution, but did not suggest an alternative proposal. He did point to doubts from his former patron and late pro-Israel GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson as a reason for his pessimism.

“He loved Israel, and he wanted to protect Israel. And he felt that it was impossible to make a deal because of the level of hatred,” Trump said. “I disagreed with it. But so far, he hasn’t been wrong”

The former president was similarly noncommittal about withdrawing troops from the region to focus on other theaters, only saying that the U.S. was “in a lot of places where we shouldn't be,” and that “We have a lot of options” when it comes to military deployments.

Ukraine, Russia, and NATO

Trump has been painted by members of the media, his opponents, and even some supporters as a staunch opponent of aid to Ukraine. And while he earlier pledged to end the war in 24 hours, the former president has never articulated a clear strategy for doing so. He reportedly quietly blessed Speaker Mike Johnson’s foreign aid package — which included roughly $60 billion in assistance for Kyiv — and since its passage has continued to praise the Speaker while generally staying quiet on the details of the legislation.

In the TIME interview, Trump again provided very few details on his policy preferences. His primary gripe is that Europe has expected Washington to foot the bill while not providing sufficient aid itself.

“We're in for billions of dollars more than they're in in Ukraine. It shouldn't be that way. It should be the opposite way. Because they're much more greatly affected. We have an ocean in between us. They don't,” he said.

When pressed about whether he would support cutting off military aid for Kyiv, Trump said, “I wouldn't give unless Europe starts equalizing." He repeated similar talking points in response to a series of further questions trying to pin down his stance on Ukraine aid.

Trump also said that he had not yet called for the release of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich because he has “so many things I'm working on.” He added that, if elected president, he would secure Gershkovich’s release. “I get along very well with Putin, but the reporter should be released and he will be released,” he said. “I don't know if he's going to be released under Biden.”

Other notable quotables

Cortellessa also asked Trump about his stance on China/Taiwan, South Korea, and NATO.

Asked whether the U.S. should defend Taiwan if China invades, Trump remained ambiguous.

“I’ve been asked this question many times and I always refuse to answer it because I don't want to reveal my cards to a wonderful reporter like you,” Trump said. “But no. China knows my answer very well. But they have to understand that things like that can’t come easy. But I will say that I have never publicly stated although I want to, because I wouldn’t want to give away any negotiating abilities by giving information like that to any reporter.”

On South Korea, Trump seemed to threaten a withdrawal of U.S. forces if Seoul did not “treat us properly.”

“They’ve become a very wealthy country. We've essentially paid for much of their military, free of charge. And they agreed to pay billions of dollars,” he said. “And now probably now that I’m gone, they're paying very little. I don't know if you know that they renegotiated the deal I made. And they're paying very little.”

The 45th president made a similar case for the NATO alliance, which he said he was not interested in re-negotiating. “I don't need to renegotiate the terms of the treaty. All I need to do is have them pay their bills. They don't pay their bills,” Trump said, seemingly referring to a certain percentage of GDP NATO countries pledge to spend on defense. There are no NATO “bills.” He added that his primary problem with the alliance was that he doubted that NATO countries would come to America’s defense if attacked despite the fact that many NATO countries fought alongside the United States in Afghanistan.

Trump gave a meandering interview which covered a lot of ground but ultimately didn’t reveal much about what another term would look like, instead sticking to his common talking points — perhaps deliberately offering little detail to keep his options open if he returns to the Oval Office next year.

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in the East Room of the White House to unveil details of the Trump administration’s Middle East Peace Plan. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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